Fifty years ago, the BBC perpetrated one of the most successful April Fool's Day broadcast hoaxes of all time: a Panorama item on the alleged spaghetti harvest in Switzerland. Documentary film-maker and later head of documentary programming Richard Cawston had a great deal to do with how it happened.
Richard Cawston joined the BBC as an assistant film librarian when the Television Service reopened after the Second World War, and quickly moved up in the Film Department to become editor and then producer of Television Newsreel. By 1954 he had produced 700 editions of the popular programme.
That year, responsibility for Television Newsreel was transferred to the News division and as a result, Cawston left and joined the Talks department of BBC television, where he was to become a documentary producer under Leonard Miall, who was in charge of current affairs and talks programming.
This also brought him on to the production team of weekly current affairs series Panorama. And with him came the germ of an idea that had been hatched some time before by Viennese cameraman Charles de Jaeger. Charles wanted to film a visual joke about a spaghetti harvest as an April Fool's hoax. The idea did not have a chance to materialise until after Cawston had joined the Panorama team, and even then, it had to wait until April 1st fell on a Monday, the night the show was transmitted.
In 1957, that's exactly what happened. Cameraman de Jaeger was on location, filming near Lugano in Switzerland, and took the opportunity to attach 20 lbs of spaghetti on to nearby laurel bushes with Sellotape and film them, plus local people 'harvesting' them, from every possible angle and direction.
The Panorama team, including presenter Richard Dimbleby, thought the idea was excellent, and a script for the segment was written by David Wheeler. The film opened with images of spring buds and flowers, and Richard Dimbleby's voiceover, spoken perfectly normally and deadpan over the opening Italianate music, began:
"It isn't only in Britain that spring this year has taken everyone by surprise. Here, in the Ticino, on the borders of Switzerland and Italy, the slopes overlooking Lake Lugano have already burst into flower, at least a fortnight earlier than usual.
"But what - you may ask - has the early and welcome arrival of bees and blossom to do with food? Well, it's simply that the past winter, one of the mildest in living memory, has had its effect in other ways as well. Most important of all, it's resulted in an exceptionally heavy spaghetti crop.
"The last two weeks of March are an anxious time for the spaghetti farmers. There's always the chance of a late frost which - while not entirely ruining the crop - generally impairs the flavour, and makes it difficult for him to obtain top prices in world markets. But now these dangers are over, and the spaghetti harvest goes forward.
"Spaghetti cultivation here in Switzerland is not, of course, carried out on anything like the tremendous scale of the Italian industry. Many of you, I'm sure, will have seen pictures of the vast spaghetti plantations in the Po Valley. For the Swiss, however, it tends to be more of a family affair.
"Another reason why this may be a bumper year lies in the virtual disappearance of the spaghetti weevil, the tiny creature whose depredations have caused much concern in the past.
"After picking, the spaghetti is laid out to dry in the warm Alpine sun. Many people are often puzzled by the fact that spaghetti is produced at such uniform lengths, but this is the result of many years of patient endeavour by plant breeders who have succeeded in producing the perfect spaghetti.
"And now, the harvest is marked by a traditional meal. Toasts to the new crop are drunk in these poccalinos, and then the waiters enter bearing the ceremonial dish, and it is, of course, spaghetti, picked earlier in the day, dried in the sun, and so brought fresh from garden to table at the very peak of condition. For those who love this dish, there's nothing like real home-grown spaghetti."
The film segment ran just under two and a half minutes and closed with shots of the locals eating the aforementioned meal, then returned to Richard Dimbleby live in the studio to close the edition.
Sitting on the desk in front of him was a large calendar clearly indicating that it was April 1. In addition, Dimbleby closed the programme with the words, "And that is all from Panorama on this first day of April".
Despite these precautions, however, a large number of viewers thought the item was true, and the BBC switchboard at Lime Grove took continuous calls for the next two hours. Some viewers got the joke - one from Bristol noting that in fact spaghetti grew horizontally, not vertically - but in many cases the calls came in to clear up a family argument, where the women knew that spaghetti was made from flour, oil and water while the men thought that as Dimbleby had said it, it must be true.
Steps had been taken to inform the then BBC Director-General, Sir Ian Jacob, that an April Fools hoax was going to go out on a Current Affairs programme, but apparently the message never reached him. Someone on the team ran into him a couple of days later and he said, "I always used to think that monkey nuts grew on bushes until I went to serve in the Canal Zone and saw them growing on the ground. The moment I saw the spaghetti item on Panorama, I said to my wife, 'I'm sure spaghetti doesn't grow on a bush.' We had to look up three books before we confirmed it."
Dimbleby was in his 21st year of broadcasting. He died in December 1965. Richard Cawston went on to make the seminal documentary This is the BBC in 1959. He became head of BBC documentary programmes in 1965 and today is remembered as one of a small band of pioneer television documentary-makers, particularly for his film Royal Family (1968-9) which documented a year in the private and public life of the Queen. He was BAFTA chairman from 1976-79 and a trustee from 1971 until his death in 1986.
• Other sources include Richard Dimbleby, Broadcaster, Ed. Leonard Miall, BBC, 1966.